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Still waiting for a three-cylinder dream car

The Audi A2, built from 1999 to 2005, was only sold in Europe.


It looks like someone will finally sell me the three-cylinder car for which I've been waiting so long. It will likely be Ford.

The one I wanted several years ago wasn't available. That was the all-aluminum Audi A2, built between 1999 and 2005, available with a little three-cylinder diesel that delivered average fuel consumption of less than 3 litres/100 kilometres (that's an amazing 95 miles per Imperial gallon).

Unfortunately, its advanced aluminum space frame priced it out of the small-car segment and only 175,000 A2s were sold in Europe. The car never made it to North America. Audi is planning on having a new A2 for 2015, again powered by three-cylinder engines, but I don't know if that one will make it over here or not.

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However, Ford is almost certain to have a new, three-cylinder, 1.0-litre turbocharged gasoline engine available in the North American Ford Focus by 2014. I recently read an ecstatic review in a British car magazine of this tiny engine's performance. Variable valve timing, direct fuel injection, miniature turbo, and advanced electronics (a package Ford calls EcoBoost) produced 123 horsepower from 999 cc displacement, which took the car to a top speed of 120 mph.

The reviewer loved the smoothness and torque of the engine, which has 20 per cent less displacement than a Harley motorcycle. Who says there's no replacement for displacement? The little Ford triple is rated at CO2 output of just 114 grams/kilometres and combined fuel consumption of 56.5 mpg (5 litres/100km) for the six-speed version.

Ford and other manufacturers have argued for years that there's lots of room for major improvements in gasoline engines without resorting to the heavy batteries and electric motors of hybrids. About three-quarters of the energy in gasoline is wasted as heat and friction in older engines and just one-quarter makes it to the wheels. Diesel engines only waste about two-thirds of the energy on heat and friction.

As impressive as 123 horsepower is from a one-litre engine, Ford says twin sequential turbocharging can boost its output to as much as 177 hp. The plan is to have the 1.0-litre EcoBoost entirely replace Ford's normally aspirated 1.6-litre, four-cylinder motors in most of the world.

With the tough fuel economy standards being forced on auto makers by governments, we're seeing some extraordinary technical developments. Ford first showed this three-cylinder, 1.0-litre engine at the Frankfurt Motor Show last September and it caused quite a stir. While it will show up in North America in the Focus, it might prove to be too expensive to put into the less-expensive subcompact Fiesta, but that all depends on the price of gas in 2014-15. Anyone care to guess what that might be?

With gas prices being what they are, Ford has found that even pickup truck drivers are ready to opt for a more expensive EcoBoost six-cylinder engine over the traditional large V-8. Fuel economy is significantly improved with these direct injected turbo engines if you drive them carefully. If you stomp hard on the gas every time, that blower blasts in a lot of gasoline to produce the power and you really don't save much at all. You have to learn how to drive with these engines in a way that maximizes their benefits.

So I'll wait and see how much they cost and what kind of fuel economy these three-bangers deliver in the real world before I slap my money down. Naturally I'd prefer a diesel three-cylinder to a gasoline three-cylinder but Ford thinks otherwise.

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It's too bad I couldn't get that A2 back in 1999. Think how much money that would have saved me on fuel over a decade.

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